Changing the way art students see their future careers

At VCU's Center for the Creative Economy, aspiring creatives learn to apply their skills in the business world.

Students and an instructor in a recording studio.
Photography by Steven Casanova, courtesy of VCUarts.

The students glance down at the cash on the table as Garreth Blackwell’s question swirls around their heads. Two weeks prior, Blackwell, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, had split the class of about 20 students into four groups and lent each team a $5 bill. The goal was to take their modest investments and make as much money as possible. Most students returned with more than they ever expected — one team earned $248, another $823.87. A third returned with $20 while the last team broke even. 

At first, the assignment seemed impossible. What business could thrive on just $5? But the challenge sparked their imaginations, spurring them to recognize the assets money can’t buy: ingenuity and perseverance. They became service providers, cleaning homes and delivering groceries. They offered massages and tutoring. They returned products to Ikea, read Tarot, watched pets, developed a zine-making nonprofit, and even courted an additional investor. 

The lesson in Blackwell’s question seemed obvious now. As arts majors, they already possess a creative curiosity that empowers them to stray from norms and standards, that primes them to invent new ways of thinking about and seeing the world. They didn’t need $5 to realize that, but the limitation pushed them to reconsider what they were capable of.

What they already have, they realized, is far more important than what they thought they needed.

The assignment was given in Blackwell’s course, The Creative Economy, which demystifies the business world for arts students. Blackwell, an entrepreneur, graphic designer and instructor in the VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy, built the class around the idea that art making and business are inherently similar collaborative processes that need passion, experimentation and unorthodox methodology to succeed. 

The course is part of an ambitious curriculum at the Center for the Creative Economy, which aims to strengthen the business acumen and entrepreneurial resolve of arts majors. But the center’s success relies on students who recognize how artists of any discipline drive the economy.

In Blackwell’s class, his cohort of art students needed to conquer their self-doubts before they could recognize their value in a business environment.

“I am removing every excuse you have,” Blackwell told the class. “It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t have that money, I don’t have that degree, I don’t have that partner.’ But together you turned $20 into $1,000.”

Guiding the next generation

The creative economy is a 21st-century concept, a term coined to describe the appreciative value that art and innovation lend to an idea or product. In theory, the creative economy encompasses any cultural good or service — from television to publishing to textiles — but not every output of the creative economy is strictly a commodity. In practice, TV programs pull advertising campaigns and streaming apps into their orbits, books necessitate translation and digitization, and clothing requires materials sourced and items distributed. 

The United Nations reported in 2013 that the growing creative economy generated more than $2 trillion in global revenue. And while the specter of automation could even eat up jobs in the legal and accounting sectors, a 2016 study in the business magazine McKinsey Quarterly found that team management and project planning, especially within arts and entertainment, are virtually immune to that fate.

With this climate in mind, the Center for the Creative Economy is changing the way VCUarts students see their careers, revealing to them a wide range of industries and professions that can benefit from their skills as illustrators, musicians, filmmakers and more. The curriculum encourages students to consider the broader applications of art, design, performance and scholarship by preparing them to build prototypes, present ideas to corporations, empathize with customers and work with engineers. The center’s three programs of study — Creative Entrepreneurship, the internship program Design Operations, and the certificate in Advanced Media Production Technology — train students to be leaders and teammates in industries that value innovation above all else.

“It’s a nice mix of practical business advice and more philosophical ideas about how we treat our practice and tackling the anxieties that many artists feel,” said Summer Doss, a senior majoring in communication arts. 

Matt Woolman, interim associate dean for research, innovation and graduate studies, co-founded the center after introducing the idea at VCUarts’ campus in Qatar in 2009. Then the director of design entrepreneurship, he quickly realized that Qatar’s fledging design industry meant the job market was highly competitive. VCUarts Qatar graduates needed the skills and confidence to open businesses of their own or stand out against other skilled professionals. He created a successful entrepreneurial training program that was attuned to artists’ needs and partnered with local businesses. The model served as the framework for the Center for the Creative Economy in Richmond when it launched in 2011.

The Richmond center’s curriculum needed to respond to different challenges. With a deep recession across the United States, art students and their parents were concerned that arts-related careers would be considered inessential amid widespread layoffs and downsizing. Woolman wanted to confidently assure them that creative disciplines held enormous value, and that the skills art students were learning in the studio or on stage could apply to a broad range of potential careers.

“We provide them with experiences that are transferable to any workplace,” Woolman said.

Three people in a meeting room.
Photography by Steven Casanova, courtesy of VCUarts.

Brainstorming in the Depot 

Located in the VCUarts Depot on Broad Street, the Center for the Creative Economy space echoes the spontaneity of a Silicon Valley startup with high ceilings and exposed brick, long conference tables and rolling whiteboards. It’s easy to imagine the next Apple or Netflix emerging from among the bean bag chairs, note-covered walls, 3D printer and pingpong table. It’s cozy and modular, a box suited for thinking outside of one.

When Jeff Foster tells his Idea Accelerator class to devise “problem statements” for their business concepts, students take off to huddle in different rooms designed for collaboration. Foster, the interim associate director of the Center for the Creative Economy, wants these statements to be a clear articulation of the challenges each team’s project faces and how their unique ideas respond to them.

Problem statements are the first step on what Foster calls “innovation canvases” —comprehensive worksheets that guide the development of their projects. The canvases ask incisive questions like, “What are you trying to achieve?” and “How many different ways can you meet your population’s needs?” that put each group’s ideas through rigorous intellectual tests. 

Foster compares the exercise to being a prototype developer. To sell an idea, even internally, innovators need to clearly explain the problem it solves and how. In many ways, the process parallels an artist’s statement by explaining the methodology behind creative decisions.

“All those things that they’re learning in an arts and design context easily translate to entrepreneurship,” Woolman said. “They have to think on their feet, they have to defend oftentimes crazy ideas, they have to listen to criticism and they have to understand the value of failure.”

Forging new directions 

In Your Ear Studios, a slice of Hollywood nestled in Shockoe Bottom, is the home of the Center for the Creative Economy’s Advanced Media Production Technology program. The sound production studio is a powerhouse of mixers, consoles and inputs, flanked by recording spaces for musicians and actors. It’s the birthplace of Grammy-winning albums, commercial spots for major brands such as Coca-Cola, and dialogue production for films such as “The Help” and “Gladiator.” In between, the studio is a state-of-the-art classroom with expert instructors. As a workplace, In Your Ear is the best hands-on experience students can get, allowing them to work with industry-standard equipment and sought-after professionals. 

In the advanced media program, intensive hands-on coursework is the fulcrum by which graduates leverage a major career change. Co-managed by In Your Ear Studios, the one-year post-baccalaureate certificate program takes graduates from any discipline who are seeking employment in the vast and growing field of digital media. 

Students can choose to focus on various specializations within media, from editorial storytelling to music production, but they’re all required to collaborate on major projects — a crucial skill in the world of media production.

“All those things that they’re learning in an arts and design context easily translate to entrepreneurship,” Woolman said. “They have to think on their feet, they have to defend oftentimes crazy ideas, they have to listen to criticism and they have to understand the value of failure.”

“One of the greatest challenges and blessings of this program is that you learn how to work with other people,” said Arlen Kerndt, a graduate of the post-baccalaureate advanced media program who earned his bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Christopher Newport University. After graduating, he wanted to be a filmmaker, but wasn’t sure how to break into the industry without much formal training. The advanced media program helped him find a career path, teaching him specialized and transferable skills in editing and production.

“It’s given me a leg up. I’ve learned so much about audio and post-production and pre-production,” Kerndt said. “It’s really been a crash course in the industry.”

And while the advanced media program offers a clear line from class assignments to future jobs, the Center for the Creative Economy is full of similar examples.

The center has plenty of room to grow, and recent changes project a bold future for it. In the past year, its courses have been made more visible to students when enrolling in classes, and they’ve launched Art Foundation courses that introduce first-year fine arts and design students to the center’s offerings.

The Creative Economy course that Blackwell teaches is offered each semester “and we have talked about summer potential and the need for more sections as well,” he said.

“We set out not to be another academic department, but to be a center,” Woolman said. “We wanted to operate like a startup — lean and mean and nimble enough to create something that responds to what’s happening out in the industry, or the marketplace, that we can pilot or test drive here. 

“Maybe it evolves into a course, maybe it evolves into an internship, maybe it evolves into something else. But it’s a way to operate outside of a traditional discipline, to give students a taste of how they can apply their skills to industry.”

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